Archive for December 14, 2017

War Films

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on December 14, 2017 by dcairns

I picked up an intriguing oddity in a charity shop — Myths and Legends of the First World War, by James Hayward. I wasn’t particularly expecting cinematic connections, but there turned out to be several. A juicy one comes when Hayward is covering the tale of the Angel of Mons, a weird bit of mystical nonsense originated by author Arthur Machen in a short story, The Bowmen, which imagined the archers of Agincourt appearing in spectral form to assist the British Expeditionary Force during its retreat from Mons during WWI. The fictional story somehow got regurgitated as fact, a kind of trench urban legend or FOAF (Friend Of A Friend) tale, with the figure of St. George morphing over time into an actual angel bestriding the battlefield. Over to Hayward —

No less dubious was a report in the Daily News in February 1930, based on an American newspaper story. According to Colonel Friedrich Herzenwirth, said to be a former member of the German intelligence service:

The Angel of Mons were motion pictures thrown upon ‘screens’ of foggy white cloudbanks by cinematographic projecting machines mounted in German aeroplanes which hovered above the British lines . . . The object of the Germans responsible for these scientific ‘visions’ was to create superstitious terror in the Allied ranks. 

According to Herzenwirth, the plan backfired, and was successfully exploited by the British for their own benefit. However, the very next day the Daily News published a corrective report, explaining that its Berlin correspondent had been informed by official German sources that there was no record of the mysterious colonel, whose story was now dismissed as a hoax. Curiously, the projection idea would be resurrected by the British propaganda agencies in March 1940, who in the midst of the static Phoney War, gave consideration to ‘a suggestion for an apparatus to project images on clouds’ over the German lines by means of an unspecified ‘magic lantern’ apparatus.

I like the idea of the Angel of Mons as a kind of bat-signal.

The idea was not pursued. However, further evidence of the remarkable staying power of this particular myth came in March 2001, when it was announced that actor Marlon Brando had paid £350,000 for spectral footage of angels shot by William Doidge at Woodchester Park in the Cotswolds during the Second World War.

This isn’t explained very well, but it seems Brando wanted to buy the footage to use in a film which was seemingly planned to dramatise the origins story of this material, with Brando playing an American

Doidge, a veteran of the BEF and the retreat from Mons, was said to have been obsessed with the angels legend of 1914, believing they could lead him to his Belgian sweetheart, with whom he had lost contact during the war. Like Machen’s original story published by the Evening News, the film promised excellent entertainment, although as factual history the verdict is likely to be less kind.

The verdict appeared a year after this story hit the Sunday Times, with Danny Sullivan, who had acquired the “angel footage” (only one photograph seems to exist) admitting the whole thing was a hoax, a publicity stunt to promote tourism at Woodchester Park. Along with Brando, the film project also involved director Tony Kaye, of AMERICAN HISTORY X and craziness fame, who was quoted as saying “I want to include Doidge’s footage of the apparition at the heart of the movie. It will be a spine-tingling moment. This is the closest we have on film to proof of an angel. I’ve spent much of my life looking at special visual effects, and this is an effect for which I have no explanation.”

Hey, Tony! I think I have an explanation!